Summer is a time when jellyfish party, and this year is no exception. For the last few months, all around the northern hemisphere, it’s been a jelly bash. Starting in the Pacific, here’s a globe-trotting tour of what’s been happening beneath the waves.
In early summer, I wrote about the vast regattas of by-the-wind sailor (Velella velella) surfing down the west coast of the the U.S. Recently, another gelatinous animal, the crystal jelly (Aqueora victoria), famous for its display of blue luminescence has been lighting up Oregon beaches.
Jaws is back in theaters and great white sitings are in the rise on the Atlantic coast, but jellies have been striking fear in the hearts of East Coast swimmers too. The warm Gulf Stream delivered a puff of stunning –both visually and in its sting — Portuguese man-o-wars to mid-Atlantic beaches this summer.
A little farther north, the shallows of Cape Cod have seen the reappearance of a dime-sized but powerful creature called the clinging jelly, (Gonionemus vertens) which has special pads at the end of its tentacles that grab ahold of prey like an alien stuck to the windows of an airplane in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Countries bordering the eastern Atlantic including England and Portugal have been inundated with swarms of big round blue medusae. Despite their size, which can reach 4 feet in diameter, these barrel jellies (Rhizostoma pulmo) aren’t fierce stingers, though they have hassled fishermen and creeped out beachgoers. Like finding Madonna seared on a piece of toast, one photographer found a recently washed up barrel jelly that looked a lot like the Greek god Medusa who gives her name to all swimming jellies.
Continuing east into the Mediterranean, Spanish beaches have born the brunt of the swarms of fiery mauve jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca). In balmy Costa del Sol, local papers reported 800 stings during a four day period in mid-July, prompting government officials to deploy patrol boats morning and night to keep the jellies from deterring tourists.
In late July, a massive bloom of the nomadic jellyfish (Rhopilema nomadica), an invasive from the Red Sea, nearly shut down the Rutenberg power plant on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast. Last week, I was in Israel doing research for Spineless and got word that the same bloom had drifted into Haifa bay where I met up with fearless diver Moti Mendelson to snorkel in its remains.
Swimming around the animals was treacherous because they have a sting that feels like scorching slap. But the beauty of the creatures overshadowed the occasional burn. By the time I saw it, the bloom was growing old. The jellies’ eyelash thin tentacles had been ripped off their bells by shear currents or perhaps nipped off by predatory fish. Strands of stinging-cell-armed tentacles were left floating in the sea like pieces of confetti. Near the surface, the animals that were still active moved gracefully, like chandeliers sprung to life. Below me, the sea floor was littered with the senescent creatures, and they they rolled gently in the surf like balloons dropped to the dance floor. I had the real feeling that I was visiting the ocean at the end of a long summer party.